Cooke, Sam (1935-1964)

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Cooke, Sam (1935-1964)

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Soul music star Sam Cooke laid the blueprint for many of the Soul and R&B artists who followed him. One of the first major Gospel stars to cross over into secular music, Cooke was also among the first Soul or R&B artists to found his own music publishing company. During a time when many black artists lost financial and artistic control of their music to greedy independent and major record labels, Cooke started his own record company, leading the way for other artists such as Curtis Mayfield to do the same. But it was Cooke's vocal delivery, which mixed a sweet smoothness and the passion of Gospel music, that proved the greatest influence on a number of major Soul stars, most significantly Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Womack, Al Green, and Marvin Gaye. Because Sam Cooke was one of Gaye's musical idols, the man born Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. went so far as to add an "e" to the end of his name when he began singing professionally, just as Sam Cooke did.

Sam Cooke was born into a family of eight sons in Clarkesdale, Mississippi, and began singing at an early age in church, where his father was a Baptist minister. He and his family later moved to Chicago, Illinois, where Cooke began singing in a Gospel trio called the Soul Children, which consisted of Cooke and two of his brothers. As a teenager, Cooke joined the Highway QCs, and by the time he was in his early twenties, Cooke became a member of one of the most important longstanding Gospel groups, the Soul Stirrers. While he was with the Soul Stirrers, Cooke recorded a number of Gospel classics for Specialty Records, such as the Cooke-penned "Touch the Hem of His Garment," "Just Another Day," and "Nearer to Thee."

In a controversial move, Cooke crossed over into the secular market with the single "Lovable" while he was still singing with the Soul Stirrers. So contentious was this move that the single was released under the pseudonym "Dale Cook." More importantly, Specialty Records owner Art Rupe distanced the label from Cooke by releasing him from his contract for fear of losing Specialty's Gospel fan base. Cooke's breakthrough Pop hit was 1957's "You Send Me," essentially a rewrite of a well-known Gospel tune of the time, but with lyrics about the love of another person rather than God. With its Gospel influenced vocal delivery, "You Send Me" provided the foundation for Soul music for forty years to come—a foundation that never strayed very far away from Gospel, no matter how profane the subject matter became.

"You Send Me" went to number one on the Billboard charts, beginning a string of thirty-one Pop hits for Cooke from 1957 to 1965 that included "I'll Come Running Back To You," "Chain Gang," "You Were Made for Me," "Shake," and "Wonderful World." While some of his Pop material was frivolous ("Everybody Likes to Cha Cha Cha," "Twistin' the Night Away," and "Another Saturday Night"), Cooke's ardent support of the 1960s Civil Rights struggle was evident during interviews at the time. His music also reflected his commitment to the struggle in songs such as "A Change is Gonna Come," a response to Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." Then, at the height of his career, Sam Cooke was killed on December 11, 1964—shot three times in the Los Angeles Hacienda Motel by a manager who claimed to be acting in self-defense after she asserted Cooke raped a 22-year-old woman and then turned on her. Although the shooting was ruled justifiable homicide, there were a number of details about that night that remained hazy and unanswered, and there has never been a sufficient investigation of his death. For years after his death Cooke has remained a significant presence within Soul music, and in 1986 he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

—Kembrew McLeod

Further Reading:

McEwen, Joe. Sam Cooke: A Biography in Words and Pictures. New York, Sire Books, 1977.

Wolff, Daniel. You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke. London, Virgin, 1996.